The Last Sunday after the Epiphany, 7 February 2016
II Corinthians 3:12-4:2
St. Luke 9:28-36 [37-43a]
Mount Sinai, Mount Tabor, Mount Zion, stand out in the biblical record, by the designation of mountains, as sacred places is common to many ancient religions. Even artificial mountains filled the bill. As peoples moved south from the Russian steppes into the Tigris-Euphrates river valley, memories of sacred mountains caused the Ziggurat to be thrown up in the desert, with a house of God nicely perched at the top. The pyramids of Egypt and of Meso-America also functioned in much the same way – close to the heavens and to the gods. Thus too, the Greeks with their sacred mountains seenes of bloody battles between the titans and the gods, and in the Christian era, Mount Athos with its devotion to the Virgin and monastic life.
In todays readings we see the connections between the holy mountain of Sinai, and Moses, and the vision that the disciples see at Mount Tabor – the mount of the transfiguration. Even Calvary functions as a “high place” with its ultimate sacrifice. Here are echoes of the high places scene of much controversy in ancient Israel. Indeed, Jerusalem itself was such a “high place” with pilgrims mouthing the psalms of assents as they ascended from the valleys and low places to the Temple on Zion. To this day it is known as the temple mount. All of this is an excellent background to keep in our minds as we see the effect these high places have on the ones who are devoted to God.
Moses came down from Mount Sinai. As he came down from the mountain with the two tablets of the covenant in his hand, Moses did not know that the skin of his face shone because he had been talking with God. When Aaron and all the Israelites saw Moses, the skin of his face was shining, and they were afraid to come near him. But Moses called to them; and Aaron and all the leaders of the congregation returned to him, and Moses spoke with them. Afterward all the Israelites came near, and he gave them in commandment all that the Lord had spoken with him on Mount Sinai. When Moses had finished speaking with them, he put a veil on his face; but whenever Moses went in before the Lord to speak with him, he would take the veil off, until he came out; and when he came out, and told the Israelites what he had been commanded, the Israelites would see the face of Moses, that the skin of his face was shining; and Moses would put the veil on his face again, until he went in to speak with him.
It is easy to understand the inclusion of this pericope in the lectionary on this Sunday, which in the Lutheran Churches is named as The Sunday of the Transfigurations. Episcopalians save that nomenclature for the Feast on 6 August, but preserve something of the ancient tradition by retaining these texts. The focus of this pericope is not only Moses (his name is mentioned frequently) but also even more so on the effect of being in the presence of the divine. We understand that from the on-going glow that emanates from Moses’ face, and also from the veil that is used to conceal the divine radiation and holiness. Such indirect theophanies are not peculiar just to Israel, but were also known in Mesopotamian culture and religious life. Thus it is an idea that had traveled with the people as they moved south into the Fertile Crescent. The fear that overcomes the people is a reflection of the fear of God that comes with exposure to the divine presence. Thus Moses is more than a prophet whose mouth is filled with the word of the divine – his face communicates God’s presence as well.
Breaking open Exodus:
- When have you been close to the Divine?
- How did it change your life?
- How do you share the Divine with others?
Psalm 99 Dominus regnavit
The Lord is King;
let the people tremble; *
he is enthroned upon the cherubim;
let the earth shake.
The Lord is great in Zion; *
he is high above all peoples.
Let them confess his Name, which is great and awesome; *
he is the Holy One.
"O mighty King, lover of justice,
you have established equity; *
you have executed justice and righteousness in Jacob."
Proclaim the greatness of the Lord our God
and fall down before his footstool; *
he is the Holy One.
Moses and Aaron among his priests,
and Samuel among those who call upon his Name, *
they called upon the Lord, and he answered them.
He spoke to them out of the pillar of cloud; *
they kept his testimonies and the decree that he gave them.
O Lord our God, you answered them indeed; *
you were a God who forgave them,
yet punished them for their evil deeds.
Proclaim the greatness of the Lord our God
and worship him upon his holy hill; *
for the Lord our God is the Holy One.
This is a theophany in poetic form – the multiple images giving us a sense of God’s presence as prophet, priest, and king. This notion will be assigned to Jesus as well. These are imperial images with God ruling over the heavens and the earth. The poem begins with a cosmic sense, with the God “great in Zion” and yet “high above all people.” This universal attitude quickly diminishes, however, as the last verses become more national in nature, with the mention of Moses, Aaron, and Samuel, and allusions to the freedom from Egypt. The holy hill, the temples mount, Sinai, or Zion are all mentioned, and we see God ruling in the heights. In spite of all the images of might and power, the poet notes that God is the one “who forgave them.”
Breaking open Psalm 99:
- Are your images of God magnificent or simple?
- Why do you image God as you do?
- How does God rule in your life?
II Corinthians 3:12-4:2
Since, then, we have such a hope, we act with great boldness, not like Moses, who put a veil over his face to keep the people of Israel from gazing at the end of the glory that was being set aside. But their minds were hardened. Indeed, to this very day, when they hear the reading of the old covenant, that same veil is still there, since only in Christ is it set aside. Indeed, to this very day whenever Moses is read, a veil lies over their minds; but when one turns to the Lord, the veil is removed. Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit.
Therefore, since it is by God's mercy that we are engaged in this ministry, we do not lose heart. We have renounced the shameful things that one hides; we refuse to practice cunning or to falsify God's word; but by the open statement of the truth we commend ourselves to the conscience of everyone in the sight of God.
Paul gives us two visions here. The first is a vision of the Glory of the Covenant, while the second is the Glory in weakness. All of what we have talked about in the first reading from Exodus, from the Psalm, and soon from the Gospel, is seen here in these two texts as well. Paul does something interesting here. He reverses the characterizations of the Exodus story. It is now the people who are “hardened” against the message with the minds veiled from the truth. Paul sees the Spirit “unveiling:” us so that we might perceive the glory that is in Christ Jesus. Paul also uses a notion from Jeremiah, where the law is not written on “stony hearts” but rather in the living flesh of the heart – so that we might know God intimately.
A new argument begins in the second half of this reading – really a different pericope. Here Paul recognizes the glory that comes to bear in spite of our weakness and difficulty. He sees the people of God renouncing the hindrances and weaknesses that beset us, “we have renounced the shameful things.” If faces glow with the revelation of God, then let them be unveiled.
Breaking open II Corinthians:
- What veils you from your faith?
- What do you see as glorious about your faith?
- What is difficult about your faith?
St. Luke 9:28-36, [37-43a]
About eight days after Peter had acknowledged Jesus as the Christ of God, Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray. And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him. They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem. Now Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep; but since they had stayed awake, they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him. Just as they were leaving him, Peter said to Jesus, "Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah"--not knowing what he said. While he was saying this, a cloud came and overshadowed them; and they were terrified as they entered the cloud. Then from the cloud came a voice that said, "This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!" When the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. And they kept silent and in those days told no one any of the things they had seen.
[On the next day, when they had come down from the mountain, a great crowd met him. Just then a man from the crowd shouted, "Teacher, I beg you to look at my son; he is my only child. Suddenly a spirit seizes him, and all at once he shrieks. It convulses him until he foams at the mouth; it mauls him and will scarcely leave him. I begged your disciples to cast it out, but they could not." Jesus answered, "You faithless and perverse generation, how much longer must I be with you and bear with you? Bring your son here." While he was coming, the demon dashed him to the ground in convulsions. But Jesus rebuked the unclean spirit, healed the boy, and gave him back to his father. And all were astounded at the greatness of God.]
In a series of stories of the activities of healing and teaching, Luke has us take a pause, as Jesus retires with some of his disciples (Peter, James, and John) and ascends to a high place to pray. It is interesting that the intention is to pray. In much the same way as at the baptism, the theophany is not the intent, but rather accompanies faithfulness (at the baptism) and prayer (at the transfiguration). There is a difference here. We wonder at the baptism if the crowd sees and hears what Jesus experiences. Here, however, it is the disciples’ perceptions that are shared with us. This is an exposition of the “hooks” to not only the past as experienced in the history of Israel (Moses and Elijah) but also to the future glory that will come upon Jesus, in unexpected ways. Some have seen this as a post resurrection appearance, while others recognize in it an anticipation of what is to come. The business of the world is always at hand, as the optional part of the reading shows us. The cares of the world are always present in spite of the glory. The focus is clear, however. After all the bright light, Luke adds, “When the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. And they kept silent.” One wonders if the silence comes from a mind at worship, or from the fear of being in God’s presence. Or, perhaps, they do not yet have the words to communicate how the Kingdom of Heaven has been opened up to them. Coming down from the mountain the works of the kingdom continue, and Luke clues us in to the reaction of the people, “And all were astounded” I wonder, did they remain silent as well?
Breaking open the Gospel:
- How has Jesus transfigured your life?
- Are there moments when you wish to stay in a state of reverie?
- What brings you back into the world?
After breaking open the Word, you might want to pray the Collect for Sunday:
O God, who before the passion of your only begotten Son revealed his glory upon the holy mountain: Grant to us that we, beholding by faith the light of his countenance, may be strengthened to bear our cross, and be changed into his likeness from glory to glory; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
Questions and comments copyright © 2016, Michael T. Hiller